Posted by: jeannineatkins | April 27, 2012

Annie Boutelle Reads This Caravaggio at Smith College

A few nights ago, poet Ellen Watson introduced Annie Boutelle with deep affection, thanking her for founding the Poetry Center as Smith College, now in its fifteenth year. The author of collections including Becoming Bone and Nest of Thistles, Annie Boutelle is retiring after many years teaching, and a warm and grateful crowd had gathered to wish her well and celebrate her newest collection of poems, which Ellen Watson called “elegant, fierce, gorgeous, and spare all at once.”

This Caravaggio, published by Levellers Press, includes reproductions of works that inspired poems that sometimes blend stories of the real models with the Biblical narratives told on canvas, people known in life and imagined in myth. Annie Boutelle gave us a bit of background on the painter who captivated her, telling  us that he was born in Milan, but the plague took his father, grandfather and uncle, so he grew up in a house of women. She mentioned his unpredictability, which may have been worsened by the lead white paint which may have entered his body. Some poems feature swords and bloodshed, which we find in the paintings, but Annie mentioned that Caravaggio’s “reverence for ordinary, stumbling human beings, the ones with bare and blackened feet, encourages us to see each as unique and valuable.”

She gave us a glimpse into her research, telling us how she saw a fleshy plant in many paintings, and when she asked a botanist to identify it, was delighted to learn it was mandrake:

“….Clearly my sort of plant. Both

aphrodisiac and sleeping potion,

flagrant as Cleopatra, a known user –“

Language skitters between the formal we might expect of the period, the sort Caravaggio was more apt to use in the streets, as well as in jail, and something modern and direct. Many first person poems speak from the artist’s point of view, while third person poems show us how those who knew him saw him.  I’m fond of ekphrastic poetry, but it’s quite something to go beyond a poem composed in response to a painting to read a whole collection based on paintings by one artist.

The spirit of celebration of this giving and daring poet was palpable in the nearly filled hall. Faces glowed as if in Caravaggio’s good light. I took this picture before the reading, knowing I’d leave Wright Hall after dark, but that lamp was still on, and the blossoms a softer white.

For Poetry Friday links, please visit The Opposite of Indifference.



  1. Fascinating! And your last paragraph is a beautiful way to end your post. Thanks, Jeannine.

  2. First, thank you for that marvelous photograph from Smith. My Elizabeth used to traipse across the way from Capin to the campus center to stand atop the stairs and wave to her mother via the Smith webcam. Ah, such memories!
    Second, thank you for sharing this volume of poetry. Caravaggio is fascinating – so quick with his fists and knives ( he was in many a brawl, I know, and there was always great mystery about his death), but so masterful with his paintbrush. The faces in those paintings were so powerful, so complex. I shall have to find this book, Jeannine!

    • Tara, I’m glad the picture brought back some memories. Smith College is so in its glory at this time of year. Love those blossoms.

      And glad you’re intrigued by the poetry. I’m just reading the end of the collection now, and really enjoy how she explores the mystery of his death.

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